In 1997, I was privileged to see wild elephants in Zimbabwe for the first time in my life. This came after two painful weeks in Harare as Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) debated, lobbied, and ultimately voted to allow Zimbabwe (and Botswana and Namibia) to sell stockpiled ivory, significantly undermining the 1989 global ban on ivory sales. Magnificent, magical wildlife in a country seemingly so determined to destroy it all. Shameful.
Now, so many years later, I'm shocked again by Zimbabwe's treatment of its elephants, as park authorities have apparently forcibly separated and captured more than 30 calves from their families (along with several lion cubs and sable antelope) in Hwange National Park for sale to foreign zoos. According to recent reports, the animals are currently in quarantine before being sold off to the highest bidder (allegedly to captive facilities in China and/or the United Arab Emirates).
Under CITES rules, live elephants can be traded or sold to zoos around the world, since such transactions are considered "non-commercial." For Zimbabwe specifically, there is a requirement that live animals are only traded to "appropriate and acceptable destinations," defined as "destinations where the Scientific Authority of the State of import is satisfied that the proposed recipient of a living specimen is suitably equipped to house and care for it." As long as the Zimbabwe authorities deem the zoos to be okay, the transaction can take place.
It may be legal, but that doesn't make it right.
Zoos are neither "appropriate" nor "acceptable" for wild African elephants. Life in a zoo is a prison sentence. In the wild, these animals form matriarchal herds with grandmothers, daughters, granddaughters, aunts, nieces, and cousins all living together for 50, 60, 70 years. No cement. No bars. No forced partnerships. No shipment from one place to another. Just freedom and family.
And now, we've received the shocking news that one of the baby elephants captured as part of this transfer has already died. The remains were gruesomely sliced and shared with villagers for food. Such a tragedy-and an entirely preventable one, at that.
The animals who do survive the capture and transit end up suffering shortened lives in captivity. Elephants in particular are highly intelligent animals with complex social lives. Young calves are heavily reliant on their mothers for a long period, and may not be fully weaned for up to 10 years. Individuals removed from their herds at a young age to be confined in captivity, whether alone or in inappropriate social groups, suffer extreme stress. Many calves die within a short time frame, and the surviving elephants typically develop a wide range of problems, including unnatural behavior, heightened aggression, and increased susceptibility to diseases such as tuberculosis. Their forced removal will also have a profound impact on their remaining family members; we can only imagine the sense of confusion, loss, and mourning that will result.
And, their capture yanks away the opportunity for the Zimbabwean people to generate income through responsible wildlife ecotourism. It has been estimated that a live elephant has a potential lifetime value of more than $1.5 million through income generated for airlines, travel companies, and local economies. The long-term loss of tourist dollars to Zimbabwe resulting from the capture and sale of wild animals will far outweigh any short-term financial gain generated by their sale to a zoo.
Sadly, this isn't the first time that Zimbabwe has done this. In 2012, four elephant calves were torn from their families and shipped off to Chinese zoos. To our knowledge, only one still survives-and this calf is in very poor health. Only a huge international public outcry prevented Zimbabwe from exporting more elephant calves in 2013.
I just wrote a letter to The Honourable Saviour Kasukuwere, Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Management of Zimbabwe, urging him to reconsider Zimbabwe's actions and to rehabilitate and release the captured animals. Join me, and make your voice heard by writing, as well (contact information found in the letter here).
At a time when the world is focused on the elephant poaching crisis, every individual is vital to the species and to the ecosystems in which they live. Born Free is fighting for elephant freedom and will not stop until each one of them is safe.
Keep Wildlife in the Wild,